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Israel's Judicial Reforms: The Road to a Troubled Regime

Benjamin Netanyahu ousted his Defense Minister. Protests have sparked up. What led to the current tension in Israel?

Photo by Gregory Atkats / Unsplash

Last week, Yoav Gallant, Israel’s defense minister, declared that it’s high time the country scrapped its judicial reform plan which comes at the expense of disheartening the society and also the military. On Sunday, not too many days after this statement, Benjamin Netanyahu decides to sack him. Although Gallant hadn’t hinted at any legislative actions he intended to take — that is, vote against it — Netanyahu didn’t seem to be in a mood for risks. But, he may have pedaled it too hard. Israelis have now come out in strong protest against the prime minister’s action.

What is this plan that has sparked up debate and pressure for Netanyahu?

The Plan

Neither the prime minister nor his allies in the far-right — like Ben-Gvir — would want to step back from their proposed plan to change the judicial system. Since the judiciary is unaccountable to voters, the coalition’s logic states that the legislature, Knesset, should have an upper hand in governance.

To this extent, the proposed plan seeks to include a clause to override judicial review. Such a provision would particularly be of help when the legislature passes a law that violates any Basic Law that the country follows — the Basic Laws are equivalent to a constitution in Israel. Invoking the override clause would then enable the legislature to go ahead with the new law irrespective of whether the judiciary deems it unconstitutional or not. It can even make sure that the judicial review does not get initiated at all. This is in clear violation of the principles of democracy that guarantee pillars of equal strength across the executive, legislature, and judiciary. And for a country that does not formally integrate any idea of decentralization, weakened governmental structures can lead to augmented authoritarianism. All it would take is a simple majority.

But, perhaps more invasive is the attempt to change the constitution of the committee that appoints judges. At the moment, this nine-member committee is composed of “three Supreme Court judges, two representatives of the Bar Association, two government ministers, and two members of the Parliament, one of whom is often from the opposition.” The new proposal gives an automatic majority to the government appointees and representatives, relieving the process from the hold of judicial opinion.

This seemingly dictatorial turn of events has managed to irk Defense Force officials too. And for a country that holds its armed forces as a central tenet of its campaign, any issue that affects even a part of the military becomes an issue of greater gravity. Even Isaac Herzog, the Israeli President, has asked the Parliament to stop progressing with the set of reform proposals. But with no more than a seat to back him up — and which can easily be tossed about — Herzog isn’t in an advantageous position to advise the government.

The Irony of Accountability

To Netanyahu and his alt-right supporters, the Supreme Court is nothing but an elite group that remains distanced from ‘actual’ problems that the public may be encountering — after all, only elected representatives would know better, right? But as is typical of the right-wing ego, they fail to understand how wrecking democratic balance cannot put a structure under ‘control’.

Now, Netanyahu might have solid examples — like that of the US — to cite when justifying why political interventions are necessary for the appointment of judges. But, when has it emerged that this is the best system out there to adopt, especially when a country is so clouded with geographical and political disputes? In letting too fluid a pathway develop between each structure of government, we willingly give way to dystopia.

For a political system that guarantees a hopping between one party and the next, it is still manageable to have these flows in place. But when a single-party dominance takes shape, it is troubling to have majoritarianism at its peak.

Although Bibi and his mates may be imagining their strong march ahead as a spectacle of their power, to most observers, this is a desperate shutdown of accountability. It’s rather ironic then that they call the Supreme Court unaccountable.

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